Better treatments for nerve damage can follow new CÚRAM research

Better treatment methods for regeneration or repair of nerve tissue can follow new CURAM research (Pic: CURAM)

Better treatment options for those that have suffered nerve damage can result from new research at, based at NUI Galway, according to researchers.

The treatment of peripheral nerve injuries that result in the loss of motor or sensors remains a major problem around the world.

However, new research at the Centre for Research in Medical Devices, supported by SFI, can provide improved treatment options. The results of the new study were published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Researchers have used artificial nerve grafts in recent years in an attempt to restore the function of the injured peripheral nervous system; which is that part of the nervous system that lies outside the brain and spinal cord.

This study explored the differences in nerve repair that result from the use of such grafts made of two different materials: collagen and polymer PLGA.

Both collagen and PLGA have been successfully used to repair damaged nerves in the laboratory, but this success has not transferred to patients in the clinic.

The CÚRAM study results supported the idea that the success of attempts to regenerate damaged nerves is dependent on the graft material used.

The different impact of graft material had been shown by many previous studies but this CÚRAM study provides a clearer understanding of how the body responds to collagen and PLGA grafts specifically.

According to the researchers, this paves the way for the development of specific nerve regeneration strategies based on the biomaterial used.

The study focused on a non-critical nerve injury and did not incorporate the effect of increasing gap distance on the regenerative response.

Silicon chip could be replaced by material made in Cork


Silicon chips, like the one pictured here, could in future be made not from silicon, but from a new alloy material made by a UCC research group (Source: Wiki)

The silicon chip — the tiny synthetic “brain” inside smartphones, laptops and electronic devices — could eventually be replaced by a material made in Cork.The substance, a mixture of tin and germanium, should allow faster, less power-sapping electronic devices. In the short term it could be used to make “wearable” solar cells to power phones or tablets.

The innovation has been announced by Professor Justin Holmes, a scientific investigator at the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research Centre and professor of nanochemistry at University College Cork.

The tin-germanium mixture has been used by Holmes and his team to make tiny electricity-conducting wires, called nanowires. These control the electrical flow in devices, as silicon does, but use less power.

Low-power electronics could mean that mobile phones need to be charged less often, Holmes said, and could open the way for solar-powered mobile phones.

“Improved power efficiency means increased battery life for mobile devices, which ultimately leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The charging of mobile electronic devices currently accounts for 15% of all household electricity consumption.”

This research has been funded jointly by Science Foundation Ireland, a government body that uses public money to support research, and IQE, a British company that produces materials for mobile phones and other electronic products.
The creation could challenge the dominance of silicon chips. Silicon, a component of sand, is a cheap and abundant material. Because of its ubiquity and its power to control electricity, it was used in the first chip made at the Texas Instruments lab in 1958.
As computers’ processing speeds have increased, manufacturers have packed more transistors onto every chip. Intel’s 4004 chip, made in 1971, had 2,300 transistors, while a chip the company makes now has 7.2bn.

The technical problem with having billions of transistors in a single silicon switch is that the amount of heat generated has shortened battery life and can lead to overheating.

This prompted scientists including Holmes to look at different materials that could be used in chips. IQE said it hopes the Irish-made material will make silicon chips faster and reduce their power consumption.

“The ability to increase the speed and number of devices on a chip by reducing size is coming to an end. Novel ideas such as nanowires will allow the microelectronics revolution to continue,” it said.

 This article was first published by The Sunday Times (Irish edition) on 21/08/2016.  Click here to view.



DNA-based computers set to replace silicon

Click above to listen to discussion with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke, broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on 27th August 2015

DNA Computers

DNA-based computers have already been built and they look set to replace silicon computers in coming years (Source:

We love our electronics, or most of us do, and every year or two, when we go to buy a new phone, computer or laptop we all expect to buy a faster, more intelligent device.

The microchips inside our electronics are ‘the brain’ of the device. They  are currently made up of silicon, an abundant material found in sand.

However, some time soon, perhaps very soon, silicon-based chips will no longer be able to provide devices with the extra speed and functionality that buyers demand.

The big question is, if electronic devices are not based on silicon, as they have been for decades now, what will they be based on?

It might come as a surprise to some to learn that DNA, the genetic material inside every human cell, is a leading contender to fill silicon’s shoes.


In a way, it makes perfect sense to use DNA for computers.  DNA is brilliant at storing and processing information, and is made up of  a simple, reliable code.

Yet the idea of using DNA in computers didn’t emerge until as late as 1994.

That was when Leonard Adleman, of the University of Southern California showed that DNA could solve a well-known mathematical problem.

The problem was a variation of what mathematicians call the ‘directed Hamilton Path problem. In English that translates to ‘the travelling salesman problem’.

In brief, the problem is to find the shortest route between a number of cities going through each city just once.

The problem gets more difficult the more cities are added to the problem. Adelman solved the problem,using , for seven cities in the US.

Thing is, it is not a hugely difficult problem, and a clever enough human using paper and pencil could probably work it out faster than Adelman’s DNA computer.

The importance of what Adelman did was to show that DNA could be used to solve computational problems – what we might call a proof of concept today.

He used synthesised DNA strands to represent each one of the seven cities and other strands were made for each of the possible flight paths between the cities.

He then performed a number of experimental techniques on the DNA strands to get the single answer that he wanted. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

It was slow, but he showed it could be done.

The question now was, what else can we do with DNA?

Purified Silicon

Purified silicon, pictured here, is sourced primarily from sand and is an abundant element in the Earth’s crust (Source: Wikipedia)


The most important element is silicon, pictured here on the right, which is the material used to make the microchip; the brain of our phones, pads and laptops if you like.

The first silicon chip was made in 1968, and it became the material of choice for the emerging computer industry in the years and decades that followed.

It is an abundant material, found in sand, and in rocks like granite and quartzite, and this abundance means it is cheap, and easy to find, all over the world.

It is also a semiconductor, which means it conducts electricity, although badly. It is halfway between a conductor, such as metal, and an insulator, such as rubber.

It would be very hard to control electricity, in terms of switching transistors on and off, using a material that conducted electricity or block its flow entirely.

This semiconducting property makes it easier to control the flow of electricity in a silicon microchip, which is crucial to success of the microchip technology.

Other materials

Aside from silicon, there are plastics, which make up a lot of the weight of many devices and laptops, in the body, circuit boards, wiring, insulation and fans.

These are plastics like polystyrene, a common one, are made up of carbon and hydrogen, two of the most common elements in nature.

There are metals, but usually light metals, such as aluminium, which is popular because it is light, and strong and has a sleek, modern appearance.

Aluminium comes from bauxite mining, and a lot of energy is spent in extracting the ore aluminium from the bauxite rock in big producer nations like Australia.

There is some steel for structural support and for things like screws, and copper is still used in wiring on circuit boards and to connect electrical parts.

The battery is key, of course, and typically it is a lithium-iron battery these days. These batteries also have cobalt, oxygen and carbon.

Rare earths

There are also small elements of rare materials, or rare earths such as gold or platinum, or neodymium, which is used for tiny magnets inside tiny motors.

electronic devices, including iPhones and other devices. This,has proved controversial as the process that extracts those rare earths from the ground is environmentally risky, some believe.

Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets inside the iPhones to make speakers vibrate and create sound.

Europium is a material that creates a bright red colour on an iPhone screen and Cerium is used by workers to polish phones as the go along the assembly line.

The iPhone wouldn’t work without the various rare earths contained in it. Ninety per cent of the rare earths are mined in China, where environmental rules are slacker.


There is a human price to be paid – elsewhere – for our shiny, fast, new devices.

For example, a centre of rare earth mining is a place called Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. The town has dense smog, and a radioactive ‘tailings’ lake west of the city, where rare earth processors dump their waste, described as “an apocalyptic sight”.

Radioactive waste has seeped into the ground, plants won’t grow, animals are sick, and people report their teeth falling out, and their hair turning white.

The people that risk their lives mining for  the rare materials that need to make make the electronics we love, usually live far away from Europe or North America.

China is a major centre for such mining, and Australia is significant too.

DNA is ‘clean’ 

When scientists built a computing running on DNA in Israel in 2003, it contained none of the silicon, metals or rare earths used in our devices today.

It could also perform 330 trillion operations per second, which was a staggering 100,000 times faster than silicon-based personal computers.

A DNA computer would be much ‘greener’ and more in keeping with our 21st century ideas of sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint.

DNA computers don’t need much energy to work. It is just a case of putting DNA molecules into the right chemical soup, and controlling what happens next.

If built correctly, and that is where the technical challenge likes, a DNA computer will sustain itself on less than one millionth of the energy used in silicon chip technology.


There have been a few important milestones since the pioneering work of Adelman in California opened the door to DNA computers back in 1994.

A lot of the progress has happened in the Weizmann Institute for Science in Israel, a world class institute in a country even smaller than our own.

Between 2002 and 2004, scientists there produced a computer based on DNA and other biological materials, rather than silicon.

They came up with a DNA computer which was, they said, capable of diagnosing cancer activity inside a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug after diagnosis.

More recently in 2013, researcher stored a JPEG photo, the text of a set of Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech using DNA.

This proved that DNA computers were very good at storing data, which is something that DNA has evolved to do over millions of years in the natural world.

DNA computers are on the way that will be far better at storing data than existing computers which use cumbersome magnetic tape or hard drive storage systems.

The reason is simple. DNA is a very dense, highly coiled molecule that can be packed tightly into a small space.

It lives in nature inside tiny cells. These cells are only visible under a microscope, yet the DNA from one cell would stretch to 2 metres long if uncoiled and pulled straight.

The information stored in DNA also can be stored safely for a long time. We know this because DNA from extinct creatures, like the Mammoth, has lasted 60,000 years or more when preserved in ice, in dark, cold and dry conditions.

One of the few advantages of our Irish weather is that it is makes it an attractive place for high technology companies to base their data store centres here.

It was a factor in the announcement by Google last week that it was to locate a second data centre in Dublin.

Silicon Chip (Source

Many industry experts believe the days of the silicon chip, like this one, are numbered, and some believe DNA will replace it as the material of choice in our future devices (Source:

DNA chip

A DNA computer chip – if we call it that- will have to be far more powerful than existing silicon chips to establish itself as a new technology.

This will be ‘disruptive’,and a lot of money is invested in manufacturing plants like Intel in Leixlip, which have been set up and fitted out to make silicon chips.

But, regardless of the level of investment, and Intel have invested something like $12.5 billion in their Leixlip plant since 1990, silicon’s days are numbered.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with a law governing the production of faster and faster computing speeds, which has proved accurate.

He said that the number of transistors on an ‘integrated circuit’ – the name given to chips before silicon became the material of choice – would double every two years.

This doubling has continued every two years since 1965, but engineers say that they are fast reaching the point where they have exhausted silicon transistor capacity.

The need for something to replace silicon is becoming urgent, and this is why a recent breakthrough in DNA computing in the UK is especially timely.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have just announced they have found a watch to change the structure of DNA – twice – using a harmless common material.

The material is called EDTA and it is found in shampoo, soaps and toiletries to keep their colour, texture and fragrance intact.

The scientists used EDTA to change DNA to another structure, and the, after changing it, to change it back into its original structure again.

In silicon, the transistors switch between ‘on’ and ‘off’ states and this provides the means of controlling the way that the silicon chip works.

Similarly, this breakthrough has shown, for first time, that scientists can now also switch DNA between two ‘states’ or forms.

The research was just published (17th August) in the journal Chemical Communications.

The fact that the structure of DNA can be changed twice means that it is possible to create DNA ‘logic gates’, like those which are used in silicon computers.

A logic gate, by the way,  is something that is capable of performing a logical operation based on more or more logical inputs, to produce a single logical output.


DNA computers can take us to a new level of computing which wasn’t possible with Silicon.

DNA computers, the size of teardrops, will be constructed in the future, using nanotechnology; will will be as powerful as the supercomputers of today.

This size will be important as we are entering an age when many things will be connected to the internet in our homes and offices, all talking to one another.

These devices will have artificial intelligence, and they will be capable of rapid processing of data, and making decisions to benefit mankind.

We come home, and some wearable device detects we are sweating, and the hot water is put on for a shower, while a cold drink is made in the kitchen.

We will have a lot of devices, and if they are based on DNA technology, we’ll need a lot of DNA, but that is no problem, as we can now make it ourselves.

There are no toxic materials required to synthesize DNA and it can provide us with the technology we crave, without something else paying for it with their ill health.

Invisible soldiers on the way; Cyber war, how real is the threat?; bottle feeding obesity link

America's Future Warriro will go beyond camouflage to become truly invisible. Nanotechnology in the fibers of the soldier's uniform will allow it to perfectly mirror the environment. Like a chameleon, this high-tech commando will take on the appearance of whatever he is standing against. Concept Photo by  Edit International. Copyright 2003.

The US army is aiming to create nano materials that will enable soldiers to virtually disappear against any background  [Concept Photo by Edit International]

Cyber terrorists, or hostile powers have featured in Hollywood films as being able to knock out air traffic control systems, power grids and financial centres, but how real is the threat?

Hiding from the enemy has always been important to military everywhere, but the US is set to take it to a new level with the development of uniforms that enable soldiers to virtually disappear against any background.

Breastfeeding up to six months, the evidences shows, reduces the rest of later obesity by about one quarter. We discuss

Click below to listen to a discussion on the topics above on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan on East Coast FM.

This was first broadcast on 7th May 2015

Quantum teleportation; self-healing metals; and the wonders of the eye

‘Beam me up Scotty’ becomes reality’; the rise of the self-repairing machines, and the eye; the most complex organ.

Click below to hear a discussion of these topics on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan – broadcast on East Coast FM on 25th September 2014

3D printing: potential to save and take life

Design Fund2013Acquisitions_PressRelease

The world’s first gun produced by a 3D printing machine (Credit:

By Eimear O’Neill

– Guest Writer

Three-dimensional printing has arrived and, like all new technologies it has potential for great good and bad. It could lead to the creation of new chemical compounds, drugs, medicines and medical devices to help the sick, but it could also be used to produce new, high tech weapons. Thus, this revolutionary new technology could both take lives and save them.

On the 5th of May of this year, an online organisation by the name of Defense Distributed published files that describe how to make the world’s first fully 3D printable gun. They called it the Liberator. Defense Distributed is a non-profit organisation that aims to “defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution … through facilitating global access to … knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms”. Their long-term impact aims to change the way people think about gun control and consumption. Proponents of tighter gun laws in America have expressed concern and, in an area such as 3D printing that is rapidly developing in recent years, many have questioned “why guns?”.

It is quite possible that the high-profile nature and the guaranteed publicity generation of creating a 3D printable gun advised Defense Distributed’s choice of object to develop. However, the potential applications of 3D printing are wide-ranging and diverse. The process is currently employed for many industrial and domestic uses and potential new uses include the creation of open-source scientific equipment, chemical compounds, biotechnology and medical applications and even use in the building and construction industry.

Saving lives

3D printing has recently been shown to have the potential to save lives. A baby’s life was saved when a device created by a 3D printer was used to help him to breathe. Six-week-old Kaiba Gionfriddo suffered from a rare condition called tracheobronchomalacia, a respiratory condition which causes the airway to collapse and can lead to death in severe cases. Collaboration between doctors and Prof. Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan, led to the production of a splint which was implanted into Kaiba’s chest to hold his airway open and allow him to breathe. This tiny splint was produced using a 3D printer and replacing ink with a biodegradable material. Prof. Hollister described the ability to “build something a surgeon can use to save someone’s life” as the highlight of his career. Dr. Gleen Green of the department of paediatric otolaryngology at Michigan described the case as a “work of major accomplishment” and stated that Kaiba’s life would not have been saved without the device.

Dr. Green believes that the process used to build the airway splint can be adapted to build and reconstruct many different tissue structures. This belief is shared by Dr. Anthony Atala, an expert in the field of regenerative medicine, or the practice of restoring damaged tissue by using the body’s own healthy cells. In 2006, Dr. Atala was at the head of a team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine that developed the first lab-grown organ, a bladder grown from the patient’s own cells. He is now working on what he sees as the donor system of the future – 3D printing of organs, replacing ink with human cells. This involves scanning of the patient’s own body and then using the information found to design a personalised, patient-specific, printable organ. This is extremely important at a time when the urgent need for healthy donor organs greatly outweighs the supply. It also counteracts the problem of rejection of transplanted organs as the printable organs are grown using the patient’s own cells.

Prof. Lee Cronin has big ideas about the potential to use 3D printing at a more molecular level, in the area of drug development and distribution. Cronin’s aims are ambitious: “what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs”. His team at Glasgow University are investigating how to produce simple drugs such as ibuprofen with a 3D printer they call a “chemputer”, where ink is replaced by chemical reactants. This could conceivably allow medicine to be distributed globally and also allow medicine to be produced exactly where it is needed. Cronin believes it could remove the problem of ineffective counterfeit drugs that are becoming more widespread in the developing world. Pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest and Cronin hopes that grant-making organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports many public health initiatives, will be interested in the possibility of introducing such technology in developing countries.

Taking lives

The creation of the Liberator by Defense Distributed remains controversial. Many have expressed disappointment that it was the production of a dangerous weapon that has drummed up the most publicity, interest and hype about 3D printing so far. However, Eric S. Raymond, a well-respected open source software advocate, has endorsed Defense Distributed and praised its work, saying he approves of “any development that makes it more difficult for governments and criminals to monopolise the use of force” and describing the organisation as “friends of freedom”. He recognises the creation of the Liberator as a possible “major step in the right direction”. Hopefully, the development of products with a more positive purpose, such as the device which saved the life of six-week-old Kaiba, kidneys grown using a patient’s own cells and the quick and simple distribution of printable drugs will add more steps in this direction.

Eimear O’Neill is a PhD candidate at the TCD Institute of Neuroscience and the winner of the ‘2013 Speaking Science Writing Competition for Doctoral Candidates’. 

The ‘Nano’ Tester: Professor Stefano Sanvito, CRANN

Professor Stefano Sanvito, Deputy Director of CRANN, pictured here in the Long Library at TCD

Professor Stefano Sanvito, Deputy Director of CRANN, pictured here in the Long Library at TCD [Credit: CRANN]

Lighter, stronger, more fuel-efficient airplanes; more powerful, better targeted drugs, and paper thin high-definition televisions – it has all become possible as scientists became adept at the manipulation of tiny ‘nano’ particles. The possibilities from nanotechnology are exciting, but it crucial that proper safety tests are in place. Professor Stefano Sanvito, Deputy Director of CRANN at TCD, wants Ireland to become a ‘hub’ for such nano testing.

Stefano, as the name suggests, is Italian, and graduated in physics from the University of Milan ‘about 15 years ago’. He was interested in science from when he was ‘very small’, and he has pedigree for the field. His father, who is now retired, was an engineer who worked in the sewing machine industry, while his grandfather worked in R&D for ‘big pharma’.

His interests, while at secondary school, were not only in the sciences, as he also developed a liking for philosophy. In fact, his first choice of career was to become a writer, and towards that end, he applied to study at the renowned Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. The standards for entry to the Scuola were, and are, high, with only about 6% of applicants gaining entry. Stefano didn’t make it, and then focused on his other big interest – physics.

He gained entry to the University of Milan to study physics and maths, but that was easy part. Though some 500 fellow students were also admitted at the same time, only about 50 of them would later pass the exams at the end of the year and make it into second year. It was a brutal ‘sink or swim’ test for the mainly teenage group of students. Stefano recalled that there was no help provided, no structure for students, and the pressure was immense.

He found the going extremely tough, especially the lab work, yet he passed his exams. That first year in college wasn’t at all enjoyable, as the work needed to get into the top 10% of the class was huge, while most of the physics course was of the ‘old school’ variety. It wasn’t until 3rd year, when began studying modern physics, and areas such as quantum mechanics, that things began to get interesting for him, and his talent found expression.

He doesn’t recall any event in particular that triggered a flourishing of interest in science at any stage of his life, but he did have a mentor, while at university that was a big influence on him. This was his fourth year supervisor, who oversaw his final year undergraduate project. He was a difficult man to deal with on a personal level, recalled Stefano, but he was a stimulating character and a talented high-energy scientist. Certainly, he might well have been a difficult colleague, said Stefano, but as a supervisor and scientist, he was fantastic. He also gathered around him many big names of science, which made things even better.

The final university year was an enjoyable experience thanks to his colourful, difficult supervisor. Then, with his degree in his pocket, he looked around for his next option. He wanted to continue in research, and do a PhD, but he wanted to do it outside Italy, and preferably in an English-speaking country. He chose to go to the UK, where he secured support from the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) to study ‘giant magneto-resistance’.

Military matters

The force called giant magneto-resistance was discovered in 1988 – independently, yet at the same time – by research groups led by Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg. The two men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2007 for the finding. The term describes how the resistance of certain materials to electrical current drops dramatically as a magnetic field is applied. The word ‘giant’ was tagged on to ‘magneto-resistance’ part because the scientists wanted to describe something that was a much larger effect on current than anything that had ever been seen in metals. This giant magneto force has since been used to improve the storage capacity of computer disks, car sensors, and many other devices.

The MOD wanted to use giant magneto-resistance forces to develop a new ‘solid state’ compass, and that’s why they funded Stefano’s PhD into this area. A solid state compass is a small compass found now in clocks or mobile phones that are typically built using two or three ‘magnetic field sensors’ that pick up the Earth’s magnetic readings, and send that data to a microprocessor. They can provide a very accurate positioning method.

Stefano’s PhD was awarded by the University of Lancaster, but he spent two out of three years working towards his doctorate based at an MOD site near Malvern, Worcestershire, a town of about 28,000 people located approximately halfway between Birmingham and Bristol. This site was home to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, the group that had famously developed the radar, which helped the RAF win its life or death struggle with the Luftwaffe in the 1940 ‘Battle of Britain’. The group had moved from the south of England to Malvern in 1942, where they worked under the protection of the 600-metre tall Malvern Hills. The British had, by 1942, become concerned about the threat of a ballistic missile attack on its military bases in southern England from Nazi- Occupied Belgium.

At Malvern, Stefano did ‘atomistic simulations’ for ‘sandwiches’ of different materials. In other words he analysed how magnetic affected current running through various materials. It was possible to get a different current in a material when the magnetic ‘configuration’ changed. This Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007 was awarded to Fert and Grunburg for being the first to demonstrate that an electrical current could be hugely changed by changing the magnetism of a magnet. This knowledge was used to build improved computer disk drives, and today every computer or disk drive is based on this principle, in a market worth $ 7 billion. It’s an example, said Stefano, of how basic research can lead to economic gains.

American dream

After his stint in Britain, Stefano was very keen to follow a long held dream to work as a scientist in the USA. He felt the best time to do that was after the PhD, and as a post-doctoral researcher. “There is excellent science in Europe, but there is a ‘can do’ attitude in the US that has no match anywhere in the world – maybe Israel – and I wanted to see that in action,” said Stefano. He applied and was accepted to do research at the ‘top 10’ listed University of Southern California Santa Barbara, and found it “the absolute best place”.

He found the scientific culture to be fantastic, the climate was superb, the mountains and sea were nearby, he was mingling with Nobel Prize winners – USC Santa Barbara had three winners in his few short years there alone – and his office was 100 metres from the beach. He spent two and a half years living out his California dream and while in the lab he was working on putting magnetic impurities into semi-conductors and seeing what happened.

Ireland calling

California would be hard to top, but his next move was crucial, as, after the post-doc Stefano was seeking his first staff job as a scientist. He researched the options, and saw an ad for an opportunity to work at the CRANN Institute at TCD in Dublin where he knew a renowned researcher was based – Professor Michael Coey. The package was attractive in terms of equipment, funding and personnel resources. The couple were keen too, to return to Europe, any part of Europe, in order to raise their family. Ireland seemed a good bet.

In 2006, Stefano and his wife, and two boys moved to Dublin, where he was appointed as Associate Professor in Physics, later becoming Deputy Director of CRANN in 2009. He began working closely with Professor Coey, but set up his own research group. Stefano’s group was focused on investigating the properties of nano materials. More and more companies were making nano-devices, and using nano-materials, and he developed a testing service, based on unique mathematical algorithms built into simulation software programmes, which are available to download, for companies located all over the globe.

“I have to admit that I moved to Ireland because of serpendity,” said Stefano, who is now well settled here with his family. “I wanted to move back to Europe, and my position at Trinity was the first one I could secure. However, I probably wouldn’t have moved to any other place in Ireland except Trinity because of the reputation. A second factor to steer my decision was SFI [Science Foundation Ireland]. SFI essentially started those days and it was clear that they could provide great opportunities for young scientists. I am afraid that this is not the case any longer,” added Stefano.

Ireland had a good reputation in science when Stefano arrived here seven years ago, but he said hard won reputations can be easily lost. “What really differentiate good and bad places academically is the reputation. Of course other things matter, but the reputation of a place, or your colleagues, of the commitment of the state and the society is what makes a University attractive. It takes ages to construct a reputation, and it takes very little to lose it.”


As for the future, Stefano belives that nano researchers will become increasingly able to systematically predict new materials and new material complexes ahead of experiments. Nano science will not stop there, of course, and be believes the next stage after that will involve researchers making predictions about materials with applications in mind. For example, scientists might predict a new material – that does not yet exist – for making magnets that can be used in electrical moters. Then people will make it in the laboratory. These new materials will be predicted and designed using computers, and new software.

This means an age of vastly superior new materials – designed exactly for purpose – lies ahead of us. Tehse new materials will need to be tested before they can be applied in the real world. CRANN is already known for its ability to simulate tests on nanomaterials, and Stefano wants to extend that expertise to a range of new nanomaterials coming online. This can help manufacturers by proving whether certain nano materials are really up to scratch, whether they will work in nano-devices, while also assuring the public about ‘nano safety’.

First published in the March 2013 edition of Science Spin.

Spinal cord injury repair to arrive ‘inside a decade’

There is no current treatment for serious spinal cord injury, but that is likely to change inside the next decade (Credit:

People with spinal cord injuries could have a radical new treatment available to rebuild their spine, and help them walk again, inside the next decade.

That’s according to Professor Abhay Pandit, a NUI Galway-based scientist, and Director of the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials, which is also located in Galway.

Prof Pandit’s research group is aiming to construct a kind of  biological scaffold that will link separated pieces of spinal, and reconnect them, using stem cells that are ‘told’ to grow into new spinal cord tissue.

There are many hurdles to overcome before such a treatment is available, but Prof Pandit believes it will happen, and, finally, there will be an effective treatment available to help people with spinal cord injury.

This will be great news to those affected by spinal cord injuries and their families.

According to Spinal Injuries Ireland, spinal cord injury affects, on average, one person per week in Ireland.

The majority of these injuries are sustained by people in the 18 to 35 age group, and 75 per cent of these do not return to work after their injury.

Click on the link below to hear an interview with Prof Pandit, explaining the science behind what is planned over the next few years, and Martin Codyre, a 34-year-old Irish engineer with a spinal cord injury.

LISTEN: Interviews with Abhay Pandit and Martin Codyre

Broadcast first on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM

The Secret to Insect Success: The Cuticle

The natural material that covers the entire outer body of this grasshopper and many other insects is cuticle. (Credit: Dr Jan-Henning Dirks)

Insects have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and are found in large numbers even in the harshest climates around the world.

So, what is the secret to their success? Well, one major factor is undoubtedly the cuticle, which covers the outer body of insects, such as the grasshopper pictured here on the right.

Despite the abundance of cuticle – it is the second most common natural material on the planet – no-one had studied its engineering properties in detail.

Until now that is.

Dr Jan-Henning Dirks and Professor David Taylor at the TCD Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering have shown that cuticle is flexible, lightweight, very strong, and crack resistant.

These are properties of interest to many industries, such as airplane manufacturers, for example.

LISTEN: Interview with Jan-Henning Dirks

This interview was broadcast on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 17-04-2012

Solar Cell material breakthrough at TCD

Solar Cells like these have been typically made with silicon, but silicon is an expensive material (Credit: Terry O’Rourke)

Solar energy has huge potential, in Ireland and around the world. For example, scientists have calculated that the entire energy needs of the USA could be provided by solar cells covering two per cent of that nation’s landmass.

Two per cent sounds an awful lot to cover, in a country the size of the US, but this figure corresponds to the area taken up by the country’s motorway and highway network, and the area covered by all of the nation’s rooftops.

It might be a difficult proposition, therefore, but with the will and investment it could be done, in the US or elsewhere.

The thing that is holding such an ambitious project back right now is the fact that the primary material used to make solar cells these days is silicon. Silicon, derived from sand, is expensive, so another economically viable material needs to be found.

The good news is Professor Igor Shvets and his team at TCD and CRANN have developed a cheaper and better option to silicon solar cells. It’s chromium dioxide – with the addition of some nitrogen and magnesium atoms – and it is proving a very promising material indeed.

Researchers believe it could pave the way to huge deployment of solar cells, and also lead to improved flat screen TVs, and other electronic devices.

LISTEN: Interview with Professor Igor Shvets

Broadcast on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 22.03.2012